How Jimmie Johnson's Lack of a Rival Hurts His Place in NASCAR History
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Rivalries are at the heart of sports. Yankees vs. Red Sox. Alabama vs. Auburn. Celtics vs. Lakers.
Some of the greatest moments in sports history were born from bitter rivalries. It's the same in baseball, football and basketball as it is in NASCAR.
Richard Petty had David Pearson. Cale Yarborough had Bobby Allison. Dale Earnhardt had Rusty Wallace. Jeff Gordon had Dale Earnhardt.
Jimmie Johnson has no such rival, and his legacy is hurt because of it.
As has been the case since he arrived on tour in 2002, there hasn't been another driver on Johnson's level this season. He holds a 75-point lead over second place Clint Bowyer in Sprint Cup points. He has led more laps (1136), recorded more top-10 finishes (15) and has a better average finish (8.6) than any other driver, according to Racing-Reference.info.
Since his first championship in 2006, NASCAR has become Jimmie Johnson against the field. His dominance is on par with Tiger Woods from 2000-2006 or Roger Federer from 2004-2009. Johnson has been that good.
The difference is that Tiger Woods always had Phil Mickelson, just as Roger Federer had Rafael Nadal. Johnson has no foil, no driver who can stand toe-to-toe with him consistently every year.
The closest Johnson has ever come to a true rivalry was with his teammate Jeff Gordon. The two had a great, clean battle for the win at Martinsville in 2007. Then, in 2010, Johnson blocked Gordon in the closing laps at Talladega, leading to increased friction between the two.
But as the Associated Press (via ESPN) reported shortly after the race, car owner Rick Hendrick stepped in before it could start "breaking apart the organization."
The abrupt end to the rivalry was a real shame because, as Johnson admitted in the article, it made both drivers better.
"The tension at times, it makes you dig in deeper and fighter harder and work harder," he said. "The more competitive we are, as a team, the better we're going to make our organization."
Even Gordon, one of the greatest drivers of all time, can barely be considered a rival to Johnson. Gordon has not finished ahead of his teammate in points since Johnson's rookie year in 2002, according to Racing-Reference.info. Only once during that time (2011) has he recorded more wins.
Other drivers have tried to ignite a rivalry as well.
Kevin Harvick tried to stoke the fires in 2010 when he made his famous "horseshoe" comment seen on the right. But at the end of the season, it was Johnson holding his fifth Sprint Cup championship while Harvick settled for third.
Brad Keselowski emerged as a formidable opponent last season, winning the Sprint Cup title thanks to a mechanical failure by the No. 48 car in the season finale. But Keselowski has struggled greatly in 2013 and is still winless after 22 races. It is going to take more than one strong season for Keselowski to be considered a rival to Johnson's throne.
Rivalries are more than just career numbers, they are about the moments.
On August 8, 1963, Richard Petty beat out David Pearson for the victory in a 200-lap race in Columbia, South Carolina. According to a piece by Sports Illustrated, it was the first of 63 times the two drivers would finish first and second, with Pearson holding the edge 33-30.
But the race everyone remembers is the 1976 Daytona 500.
Petty and Pearson were a lap ahead of the field, battling each other in the sport's biggest race, when the two cars made contact and spun into the infield a few yards from the finish line.
Pearson would limp his car across the finish line as Petty's crew ran onto the infield grass in a frantic attempt to push The King across the line. It was one of the most iconic moments in the history of the sport.
Three years later, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough had an equally memorable moment. After Donnie Allison and Yarborough crashed on the last lap, Bobby pulled over to help his brother, with the two drivers coming to blows on the Daytona infield. It was the tipping point in a rivalry that had been brewing throughout the decade, and it is credited as the moment that put NASCAR on the mainstream map.
Would a battle between Kyle Petty and Larry Pearson have been as memorable as that of their fathers? If Donnie Allison had tangled with LeeRoy Yarbrough at Daytona, would it have meant as much? The moments are enduring, not just because of what happened, but because of who was involved.
To this date, no one has stepped up on a consistent basis to challenge Johnson, to give him that defining moment NASCAR fans will remember for years to come. Without that moment, and without that link to a fellow Hall of Famer, Johnson's legacy will never approach that of his predecessors.
Johnson needs a true rival to achieve the same legendary status as the sport's all-time greats.
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